Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Banned Books Week

When  I was a young bookseller in Dallas, one of my great joys was celebrating our freedom to read during the American Library Association's week for raising awareness of the many challenges to  books in public schools and public libraries--that is, Banned Books Week! Early comments to our display in Dallas reflected confusion: "So, you're saying we shouldn't read these books?" and, upon clarification of the display's purpose for putting them at more ready public access, dismay: "But if they're bad, kids shouldn't be reading them!" My English major heart (I only had one and one-third degrees in English at the time) wept a little, and my bookseller/activist heart just got all pissed off. I recall one heated discussion with a customer in which my (quite reasonable, I thought) argument that one read the book before banning it was dismissed as unnecessary. Those patrons failed to understand context within the book as well as the child reader's great capacity for discernment between responsible and irresponsible behavior.

As a teacher of children's and young adult literatures, I talked with my students (more pointedly during Banned Books Week, but all the time) about access to information, reasons for challenges, fear among parents and teachers, and, again, children's and teens' ability to make wise and responsible choices about their reading.

So, this Banned Books Week, which, this year, highlights the contributions of and controversy over graphic novels, I invite my readers to consider their own favorite banned or challenged books. Likewise, I invite you to consider books you might have liked to ban or challenge (or simply reshelve in an obscure location). What are your own reactive impulses toward books you find harmful, painful, insipid, or otherwise objectionable? Do your own impulses (even if you don't act on them) give you insight into or empathy for those who do challenge books? What, ultimately,  prevents you from challenging books?

Read more about the ALA's celebration here: Banned Books Week. Read more about challenges and intellectual freedom here ALA's Office of Intellectual Freedom and here National Coalition Against Censorship.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

YA Recommendations

Adolescent Literature: Recommended Reading from Dr. Jones

First, I want to post a link to a relatively new site that offers an abundance of excellent titles that might be below the radar of mainstream and wildly popular lists: We Need Diverse Books. You will find some old favorites here, but also many new, young, and, yes, diverse, authors. They are diverse in age, ethnicity, sexuality--pretty much any way you find diversity, it will be here. The hope is that mainstream and non-mainstream readers alike will find books that reflect, validate, and transcend their own experiences. And that readers who are not white or middle-class may find characters who look more like them than most characters in contemporary children's and YA fiction.
Now, here's a list I've compiled over the years for students who want more YA. The reference points are from my required reading list. Enjoy!

If you like dystopian and/or apocalyptic lit:
  • Feed—M. T. Anderson
  • The Uglies trilogy (yes, all four of them) Scott Westerfeld
  • The Shadow Children series (first one is Among the Hidden) by Margaret Peterson Haddix (this is for a slightly younger audience, but Haddix is really great—lots of nuance and complexity)
  • Matched, Crossed, and Reached by Ally Condie
  • Susan Beth Pfeffer’s The Last Survivors trilogy (at least, it’s just a trilogy so far): Life as We Knew It, The Dead and the Gone, This World We Live In
  • How I Live Now—Meg Rosoff
  • After—Francine Prose
  • The Chaos Walking Trilogy—Patrick Ness (The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Ask and the Answer, Monsters of Men)
  • Lois Lowry’s Giver Quartet: The Giver, Gathering Blue, The Messenger, and, just recently, Son
  • The 5th Wave--Rick Yancey (Its sequel, The Infinite Sea, is out this month)
  • And of course, the ever-popular Hunger Games trilogy (Suzanne Collins), and the Divergent trilogy (Veronica Roth)

John Green:
Looking for Alaska
The Fault in Our Stars
An Abundance of Katherines
Paper Towns
Will Grayson, Will Grayson (with David Levithan)

If you liked Luna, or want more LGBTQ characters:
  • Boy Meets Boy—David Levithan (speaking of him)
  • Keeping You a Secret—Julie Anne Peters (because we luuuuurve her!!!)
  • Gravel Queen—Tea Benduhn
  • The Empress of the World and The Rules for Hearts—Sara Ryan (a wonderful writer!)
  • Parrotfish— Ellen Wittlinger (FTM transgender protagonist—more idealistic than Luna)
  • The Bermudez Triangle—Maureen Johnson
  • Nothing Pink—Mark Hardy
  • How Beautiful the Ordinary: a story collection edited by Michael Cart—more beautiful writing from a plethora of authors
  • Dive—Stacey Donovan
  • Also: more Julie Anne Peters, Ellen Wittlinger, M. E. Kerr, and Alex Sanchez

Classic YA Lit:
  • Maureen Daly’s Seventeenth Summer (1936)
  • From the 1970s: Judy Blume, Norma Klein, Robert Cormier, Paul Zindel, Richard Peck, S.E. Hinton (some of these you’ll need to look for at your local used books dealer and in your library. For instance, I doubt any Norma Klein is still in print. My personal favorites of hers are It’s Okay if You Don’t Love Me and Love is One of the Choices.)
  • From the 1980s and 1990s: Caroline B. Cooney (the last of the Janie series is just out), Susan Beth Pfeffer, Lois Duncan, and Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
  • Francesca Lia Block: there are many, but you'll want to start with the Dangerous Angels books: Weetzie Bat, Witch Baby, Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys, and Missing Angel Juan.

Classic Adolescent Lit (that is, books published for adults featuring teen characters and/or appropriated by teen readers):
J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye
John Knowles’s A Separate Peace
William Golding’s Lord of the Flies

(Just by the by, none of these are cheerful or uplifting. These next two at least have more hope:)
Alice Walker’s The Color Purple
Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Graphic Novels:
Persepolis and Persepolis II—Marjane Satrapi
The Arrival—Shaun Tan
The Watchmen
Sandman—Neil Gaiman
Maus and Maus II—Art Spiegelman
American Born Chinese--Gene Luen Yang
Boxers and Saints--Gene Luen Yang

  • Robin McKinley—lots of fairy tell retellings, but also her own high fantasy: start with Beauty for the former, then move on to Rose Daughter. For the latter start with The Hero and the Crown, then go on to The Blue Sword (a prequel). Then Chalice, then Pegasus (Pegasus volume two is due in 2015.) She also does some good horror meant for a slightly older audience: Sunshine and Deerskin (also based on a fairy tale [Perrault's "Donkeyskin" and the Grimms' "Many Furs"] and pretty disturbing. But so, so good!)
  • Garth Nix: the Abhorsen trilogy: Sabriel, Lirael, Abhorsen; Clariel comes out I believe in October. It will be a prequel. We are VERY EXCITED about it.
  • Also Garth Nix: the Sally Lockhart books (more mystery/speculative history than fantasy)
  • Neil Gaiman—actually he’s really either for children or grown ups, which means we can ALL read him! Try The Graveyard Book and Coraline
  • Terry Pratchett—the Tiffany Aching books are wonderful; I think they’re part of Discworld

Contemporary YA Fiction that I think is awesome. Or at least worth reading.
  • Stoner and Spaz and Now Playing: Stoner and Spaz II—Ron Koertge
  • All four YA Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants books by Ann Brashares, and also the final one, for adults, but it will make you bawl your eyes out the whole time. Not even kidding. But so beautifully written. They please me.
  • Fallen Angels and its loose companions Sunrise Over Fallujah and Invasion—Walter Dean Myers. The first is set in the Vietnam War, the second in modern Iraq, and the third during WWII. And anything by Myers is well worth reading. Anything.
  • If You Come Softly and Behind You—Jacqueline Woodson (I’m her number one fan, but don’t tell her, ‘cause that sounds kind of stalker-y. She has lots more novels, poetry, and picture books, mostly for a slightly younger audience, but all well-worth reading). Her most recent, Brown Girl Dreaming (as of 9-4-14), just hit the NYTimes best seller list!
  • E. Lockhart’s Ruby Oliver series: The Boyfriend List, The Boy Book, The Treasure Map of Boys, and Real Live Boyfriends. I know, I know it sounds ridiculous, but it’s funny and savvy and has FOOTNOTES!!
  • Jaclyn Moriarty: she has a bunch of companion novels that never work directly as prequels of sequels—they market them as Ashbury/Brookfield books. Start with The Year of Secret Assignments
  • Maggie Stiefvater: generally a mash-up of contemporary world meets supernatural world; try her Wolves of Mercy Falls series: Shiver, Linger, Forever. (MUCH better in execution than the Twilight series). Her newest one, The Scorpio Races, is by many accounts her best. Except that’s been supplanted, evidently, by her even newer one, Raven Boys and its sequels The Dream Thieves and Blue Lily, Lily Blue (out 10-21-14).
  • Other authors to check out: Maureen Johnson, Sharon Flake, Benjamin Alire Sáenz (Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood, Dante and Aristotle Discover the Secrets of the Universe), Louise Rennison, Aidan Chambers, Virginia Hamilton, Chris Crutcher, Francisco X. Stork (Marcelo in the Real World)




Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Belated Summer Reading

I have just finished Three Times Lucky, by Sheila Turnage, a middle-grade novel that received a 2013 Newbery Honor from the American Library Association. It came from friend and fellow obsessive reader Emily L., to whom I'd like to say "Thank you!" in a heartfelt way.

Three Times Lucky initially looked like typical summer-reading fare: set in a small Southern town (Tupelo Landing, North Carolina), kids reveling in the first freedoms of summertime, seeing teachers outside of school and totally freaking out about it, all ensconced within a murder-mystery! In some ways it is typical, but it pleasantly thwarts other expectations. "Miss Moses LoBeau, rising sixth grader" is a girl with a mysterious past and a quest to unravel it. She arrived in a hurricane, an infant riding out the storm on a billboard, found by the Colonel (no, not that one, Looking for Alaska fans) whose amnesia compounds Mo's own mystery. These two orphans of the storm find refuge in each other, and in the kindness of Miss Lana, another newcomer to town. Mo's quest is for her "Upstream Mother," the woman who released her into the storm. The Colonel, surprisingly, seeks not his past, but a present for his patchwork family.

These three misfits find a place in Tupelo Landing running a café which becomes the town's social center, so when, eleven years later, a cranky  old regular turns up murdered, they join forces with other townsfolk and visiting detectives to solve the mystery, and, perhaps, prevent another murder.

Turnage does well at setting the scene--she has the hot, sticky ambiance of a Southern summer down pat, and the cadence of the rural South (even if the colloquialisms are a teensy bit overused). She effectively directs and misdirects the reader (and her characters) toward the killer and the reason for the murder. Not surprisingly, the murder is solved, as is one of the mysteries of the characters, but, more surprisingly, the other isn't. As is typical of contemporary children's literature, the book offers strong affirmation of family: families that are built by choice, community, and love, as well as families created by blood. She affirms the value of friendship across lines of gender and age, and reminds readers that sometimes rising sixth-grade is the perfect place to be.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Rebecca Donovan's Breathing series

Poor Emma Thomas (short for Emily, which is an irritation unto itself) is looking for reasons to breathe first in Reason to Breathe, again in Barely Breathing, and still in Out of Breath (all 2013, Skyscape, which I believe is an imprint of Amazon Children's Publishing). Yet the more I read, the more I think she ought just to stop, and not put any of us through the work of it anymore.

What particularly maddens me about the series is the character. She's stupid. Willfully stupid, willfully depressed, willfully resistant to helping herself. About two-thirds of the way into book three (Out of Breath) she has an epiphany, which is delightful and makes me like her for a little while, then she slips back into her old patterns and habits of self-loathing, which make me hope that the next time she walks out into the ocean, she just keeps going. (Note: I listened to the trilogy on audio, and it is a credit to narrator Kate Rudd that I moved on to the sequels. Well, credit Ms. Rudd and a very long road trip.)

Author Rebecca Donovan is ambitious, which I like, but needs a stronger editor, which I don't. If I had a paper copy, which I don't, it would be so marked up with grammar and phrasing edits that the original text would be hard to find. And of course, that's me, self-professed Editor of the World. The style might not be so frustrating for other readers. Donovan uses language in an interesting way, but too often the creative diction is subverted by poor grammar,  repetitive phrasing, and word choices which are just-ever-so-slightly off ("mouth" for "lips" and vice versa, for instance) which becomes enormously frustrating, and involves many shouted corrections. In  book three, Donovan undertakes an interesting narrative shift, using two first-person narrators. Because I'm listening rather than reading, I cannot address how the shifts are handled in print, but audio narrator Rudd does an excellent job distinguishing her characters from one another, particularly when the narration switches between main characters Emma and Evan. All the characters have distinctive voices and tones, and Rudd maintains them consistently throughout the series, adroitly navigating the sometimes abrupt narrative shifts in the third book.

I asked a writer friend how much realism is too much, and she answered, very sensibly, that if you don't like the character, that's a disservice to the reader, the book, and the character herself. So, while it might be argued that Emma is responding exactly the way a real-life teenager might respond in the same hideous circumstances (and they are, indeed, hideous), if it makes me dislike her, if I can find no redeeming qualities, what service does that do for the reader? Even in periods of deep (and often very, very dark) realism in YA literature (the late-1960s into the early 1980s, for instance), the literature had something beyond the misery to offer the reader. Readers might see themselves, their own pain, their own fear or helplessness, but these texts offered the reader alternatives--"Do I dare disturb the universe?" If not this time, perhaps the next. Real, stark, but with possibilities.

Donovan fails to offer even this much to her character, and thus to readers. Even the proscriptive "happy ending" does  not alleviate all the misery, helplessness, and self-suppression in which poor Emma Thomas has engaged. And while I'm ultimately glad (if surprised) that Emma didn't walk back out into the ocean, I really don't care as much as I wish I did. So I'm still mulling the question of realism: how much is too much? How much wallowing makes sense before characters need to find some agency and take responsibility for themselves and their own happiness?

Note: I wrote an earlier version of this blog as a review on Goodreads. See it here.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

In the Dystopic Age of Victoriana

Gabrielle Zevin's Birthright trilogy posed an interesting dilemma for me. I listened to all the books on CD, and was prepared to be wowed, as Zevin's Elsewhere and Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac both impressed me. And, actually, I was wowed, though the first novel, with the impossible-to-resist title All These Things I've Done, seemed a bit more steeped in the teenage romance genre than I would have liked. The story of Anya Balanchine (mob-daughter), her siblings, grandmother, and friends, could easily slip into the myriad conventional tropes applicable to YA dystopian fiction, YA romance, YA realism . . . YA, period.

But . . .

Zevin never approaches her subject conventionally. She offers us her world as a pre-conceived idea--we are not in the process of world-building, or world-destroying, or even of world-changing in the more conventional sense of Lois Lowry's The Giver and its sequels, or Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games (and its sequels). Instead, in this trilogy, Zevin offers a love story, a family story, a story of riches to rags and back again. And, yes, the world is changed a bit along the way.

The series opens in 2083, and is set primarily in New York City, though we make significant stops in both Mexico and Japan, and hear a good bit about the Russian mob. I would've liked more dystopic background, as is usually my inclination: What happened? When did it happen? Why did it happen? How are we going to fix it? We ARE going to fix it, aren't we? Instead, Zevin paints a devastating portrait of the New York City that is, with echoes to the New York City that was: buildings stand empty; gangs control Central Park; the Metropolitan Museum of Art (immortalized for a generation as the home-away-from-home of E. L. Konigsberg's Claudia and Jamie Kincaid) houses the equivalent of a gin-joint, a club where underage revelers can indulge in illicit caffeine, and completely licit alcohol. Paper books are rare and considered absurdly old-fashioned. Water is scarce, and "the water problem" is a thread of which readers are always aware, yet never informed. The final book shows us the New York Public Library, recast as Anya's crowning achievement: the legitimization of the family business: chocolate.

While the environmental difficulties are presumably world-wide, the problem of water seems particularly acute in North America; similarly most other countries have not banned chocolate or coffee, as the US has done. Zevin effectively opens questions of the what and the how of Anya's world, and ties them intimately to the issues of the American government's role note in alleviating problems of violence, crime, or water, but in exacerbating them, and in exploiting the nation's limited resources for the use of a privileged few.

I like Anya because she is a strong protagonist: one with drive, ambition, loyalty, a strong sense of duty, a powerful love for family, and a potent self-preservation instinct. In short, she has the flaws and virtues of both traditional genders. Yet her gender is incidental; her primary obstacles to being taken seriously as a business person, or a responsible person generally, are her age and her family. She is 16 when the series opens, and hasn't hit 25 by the time it ends, and is the daughter of the former Balanchine boss and potential heir to the role of family boss. Anya perseveres despite these obstacles, proving herself, again and again, a savvy manager, and a worthy leader of a crime family on the brink of extinction. She also, to my delight, learns to trust others, and to delegate responsibilities (the absolute inability of so many teen protagonists to trust others is an ongoing pet peeve of mine, and Zevin's Anya is proof that a teen can behave maturely in authentic and believable ways in fiction).

The Victoriana I reference in my blog title is primarily a function of tone: the language is formal, the courtesies of the day are also curiously formal, perhaps as a result of the increased and pervasive nature of street crime: young people and women seldom walk anywhere unescorted, particularly after dark, and Anya's first person narration often formally addresses the reader, breaking the fourth wall in tried-and-true Victorian convention: "Dear Reader . . .". The curious juxtaposition of futuristic setting and old-fashioned language, work beautifully, marrying our readerly anxiety about a future that seems all-too-possible with the familiarity of a clear, formal style that demonstrates that, formally, at least, everything is under control.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Fiction Contest

Here's a link to an award for middle grade fiction and submission info for YA fiction: New Visions Award/YA Submissions.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Publishing Opportunity: Fairy Tale Fiction

Open for Submissions

Submissions are now being accepted for our eleventh annual issue, The Mauve Issue, of Fairy Tale Review. The Mauve Issue will be published in 2015 and has no particular theme. Simply send your best fairy-tale work along the spectrum of mainstream to experimental, fabulist to realist. The reading period will remain open until the issue is full – we predict closing it sometime in late spring or early summer.

We accept fiction, nonfiction, drama, and poetry, in English or in translation to English, along with scholarly, hybrid, and illustrated works (comics, black-line drawings, etc.). We will consider original interview transcripts and dialogues. You may submit up to 30 pages for our consideration, though in rare cases we will consider longer works; space is limited as we are an annual journal. We can consider only previously unpublished material. Please send Word, .doc, .docx, or .pdf files. Artwork must be in high-resolution (300 dpi or higher) to be considered. In cases of translation to English, please provide proof of permission to translate and/or indicate public domain material. If your work includes illustrations that are not by you, please provide proof of permission to use the illustrations from the copyright holder, if relevant.

Contributions to Fairy Tale Review have been selected for inclusion in the O. Henry Prize Stories Anthology, Best American Fantasy, Best New American Voices, and for notable listing in Best American Short Stories, among other honors. Our esteemed list of contributors over the past decade includes Donna Tartt, Aimee Bender, Joyelle McSweeney, Joshua Beckman, Don Mee Choi, Lydia Millet, Jack Zipes, Kim Hyesoon, Marina Warner, Zachary Mason, and many others. Fairy Tale Review is now hosted on JStor, and is published and distributed by Wayne State University press. All submissions will be read by the editorial staff housed in the MFA Program at the University of Arizona along with Kate Bernheimer, founder and editor of Fairy Tale Review, and scholars and practitioners around the country. The Advisory Board of Fairy Tale Review includes Maria Tatar (Harvard University), Donald Haase (Wayne State University) and Jack Zipes (University of Minnesota, Emeritus).

All submissions must be received via Submittable, at the below link, or by mail to the editorial address below.

Submit to

Please direct any queries to ftreditorial (at) gmail (dot) com.

Of course, you may also mail your submissions to our physical office.

Editorial Address:
Kate Bernheimer
Department of English
Modern Languages Building 445
University of Arizona
Tucson, AZ 85721

Fairy Tale Review

Sunday, February 9, 2014

I am a little behind the times, but . . .

I just finished Battle Royale, by Koushun Takami. I had a student, someone who's judgment I trust, tell me I had to read it and I would love it, and that it was even better than The Hunger Games. It took me a year to get past that final comparison, but I did finally read it (mainly because I've had her book for a year and it's time to get it back to her) and she was right; I loved it. I didn't, however, think it was better than Hunger Games. I don't necessarily think that Hunger Games is better than Battle Royale, either, I just find it a false comparison. Obviously, the premises are remarkably similar: kids being forced to kill kids, but the execution of those premises, and the contexts within which those premises are at work are very different for me.

For instance, in Battle Royale we are told very little about the setting--it becomes clear we are looking at an alternate history, a twentieth-century in which Japan won the second World War--or least did not surrender--and has become a vaster and more sinister empire. The United States is the source of all things evil for the fascist government, and the romanticized source of all things free for rebellious-minded youth.

In The Hunger Games, of course, we see a post-apocalyptic North America, but are not told what apocalypse (of nature, politics, or war) has brought us to Katniss Everdeen's future, but we know what the last 70 years have looked like, and Collins offers a convincing sense of a society deeply interpellated into its own helplessness. So much so that when Katniss finds herself in the arena she cannot fathom any strategy beyond playing the game. Battle Royale offers more protagonists who wish to rebel than characters who wish to play, which I like, as throughout the first two-thirds of The Hunger Games I repeatedly begged Katniss to "for pity's sakes, think outside the box!"

Battle Royale, as my student points out, offers us myriad points of view, backstories, and personalities (many of whom appear to be in love with the closest thing we have to a single main character, Shuya). This narrative strategy pleasingly complicates the plot and conflicts--it is harder to root for a single character (or team) when so many are presented as sympathetic and engaging; it is similarly hard to hate villains when you come to understand why they are the ways they are. Yet, I don't think this approach would have been effective in The Hunger Games. Because Katniss is so centrally our protagonist, because the narrative is focalized exclusively through her point of view, and from within her worldview, it is more effective to realize with her that she does not know anything about her competitors. As she learns from her allies, her world opens up, she sees perspectives the Capitol has deliberately withheld from her, and when she finally understands that her fellow tributes are not the enemy, but that the system which placed each of them into the Reaping is, the reader feels enormous satisfaction. That processes of building empathy, of making connections and intuitive leaps, the growth from acceptance to resistance, are what make the story so compelling.

The comparison still doesn't work for me, but I am very glad I finally overcame my resistance and read Battle Royale. It is a compelling narrative in a whole other dimension from The Hunger Games; it raises its own questions of acceptance and resistance, and similarly focuses the reader on the what-ifs: What if Japan had not surrendered in World War II? What if our country had a Program pitting teenagers against one another in a battle royale, a battle to the death? What if we have an equivalent? What do we accept without question, simply because the questions are too disturbing to ask?


Friday, February 7, 2014

Fiction Publishing Opportunity

Dark Heart Volume Two: Opens January 1st. Deadline March 1st 2014


Theme: Mirrors & Tears
Word Count: 5,000 up to 10,000
Audience: Young Adult 14+ / cross over
Opens: January 1st.
Closes: Closes March 1st
Remittance: $20 for each story published and a paperback copy. The idea of the anthology is to be a showcase for new / emerging authors and is not a profit driven exercise.

With the theme of 'Mirrors and Tears' writers (both new and established) are invited to write a short story from 1,000-10,000 words for this anthology. The theme is open to interpretation and we look forward to reading a diverse range of YA tales.
Poetry is also accepted. We also welcome works from writers aged 14+

Send your submissions to FAO Kitty Rackham at